An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Oaklands Community College
Edenderry, County Offaly
Roll number: 72540O
Date of inspection: 13 and 14 November 2007
Date of issue of report: 12 March 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Oaklands Community College, Edenderry. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Biology and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and the subject teachers. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology at Oaklands Community College, Edenderry, Co. Offaly was carried out over two days. It began with a meeting with the science and biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, single first-year, second-year and third-year science classes were observed, along with a double sixth-year biology class. In addition, a meeting was held with the school principal to discuss whole-school support for Science and Biology.
The location of Oaklands Community College has been recognised as an area of social and economic disadvantage by successive governments. The school is included in the current DEIS programme and as a result is in receipt of funding and other supports to assist students in attending and benefiting from their time spent in school.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. Classes are generally streamed but not rigidly so, in order to accommodate in the most appropriate manner students following the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). Four class periods, all single periods, are allocated to all Junior Certificate science classes. This number of periods is within syllabus guidelines. However, it is recommended that the distribution of these periods be kept under review. Class sizes have tended to be small, facilitating teachers in focusing on students’ individual needs. Classes in first year and in third year are held concurrently and this facilitates movement between classes.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme and the Leaving Certificate Established (LCE) or Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). The school is currently offering Biology as an optional subject for students who choose the LCE or LCVP. During third year and following consultation with the guidance counsellor, subject teachers and their parents, students are surveyed regarding their subject preferences. The results of the survey are used to create a ‘best-fit’ model of options from which students make their final choice of subjects. The level of uptake is encouraging in Biology and classes are of mixed ability. Biology classes have been allocated two double periods and one single period per week, which is in line with syllabus requirements.
There are two teachers of Science and Biology in the school. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. Extra-curricular and co-curricular activities include visiting Dublin Zoo, entering science quizzes, and participating in the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition and Science essay competitions, with commendable success. The work of the science and biology teachers in this regard is praiseworthy. One teacher is also a member of the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA).
There are two laboratories in use in the school. They are in good condition, well maintained, and are adequate for their purpose. Each laboratory has a separate storage and preparation area. These areas are well stocked, well maintained and well ordered, with chemicals being appropriately stored. Most science classes are held in a laboratory and the laboratories are used entirely for science subjects. Access to a laboratory for specific classes is timetabled in advance. A variety of excellent posters and charts, including student-generated work, were observed on the laboratory walls, creating attractive and stimulating learning environments.
A neat and well-kept garden area is also available to the science department. This area is very well maintained and is used to provide students with practical experience when topics such as ecology and conservation are being taught.
A laptop computer and data projector are available for the specific use of the science and biology teachers and broadband is available throughout the school. In addition, the Information Technology (IT) room may also be used should teachers require it and another data projector is available if needed. A television and video recorder are available to the science department, as are overhead projectors (OHPs). A variety of excellent resources have been prepared by the science department, for example OHP slides, an excellent revision book for Leaving Certificate Biology, and PowerPoint slides. The teachers are highly commended for their work in compiling these resources.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, working fume cupboards, and gas and electrical isolation switches. The importance of active management of safety issues during student practical work was evident in one lesson observed by the wearing of protective gloves by students. This is praiseworthy. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up four years ago. It is to be reviewed on an annual basis, and the science and biology teachers are involved in this review.
There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the science and biology teachers. School development planning is underway and a planning programme is in place for the current school year. A number of whole-school plans and procedures impact on the sciences, for example, the excellent homework policy, the substance abuse policy and the special education needs policy.
School planning has progressed to the level of subject department planning. The two science teachers work closely together and effectively share responsibility for the running of the science department. One teacher takes the role of coordinator and convenes meetings and coordinates programmes of work. A number of formal science department meetings are facilitated each year at staff meetings or during staff development days. Frequent informal meetings of the science teachers take place and, together, the science teachers carry out all curriculum planning, stock control and laboratory management duties as a team. The science teachers deserve credit for their level of cooperation. Funding for the sciences is provided as requested and management has been very supportive to date.
A curricular plan for Junior Certificate Science was introduced two years ago. As a result, all science classes in first year and second year now follow the same programme and, consequently, it is intended to introduce common testing at the end of the current school year. It is intended, also, to continue this programme into third year from the beginning of the next school year. The plan lists the topics to be completed by the end of each school year by each class, in Physics, Chemistry and Biology. It is recommended that the time schedule be tightened up to cover periods of approximately eight weeks, so that classes are roughly at the same point in the programme and thus, common tests at more frequent intervals are facilitated. The listing of practical work in a more detailed plan will also facilitate the sourcing and preparation of resources and encourage the sharing of best practice among the science teaching team. Individual teachers have already carried out detailed planning work of this nature in relation to both Leaving Certificate Biology and third-year Science. This is commendable.
In the classes observed there was evidence of short-term planning. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was a theme running through each lesson. Materials necessary for class, along with the chemicals and apparatus required for student centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
Positive student behaviour was evident in all of the lessons observed. Students were engaged with the lesson at all times, responded readily to questioning and participated productively in the various activities undertaken during the lessons. The teachers taught with enthusiasm and generated an atmosphere that was inclusive, caring and challenging. There was clear evidence of differentiation in the manner in which lessons were conducted and all students were given an opportunity to achieve according to their abilities. The teachers had a high expectation of their students and were very affirming of their students’ efforts.
Teachers were very knowledgeable regarding their subject matter. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace. Ecology, the skeletal and digestive systems, conservation and pollution were among the topics covered during the lessons. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. The learning goals were clearly outlined at the start of the lessons and remained very much at the focus of all the subsequent activities. The resource material used in the lessons was produced by the teachers themselves and was of a very high quality. During the lessons the teachers used language that was appropriate to the needs of their students while maintaining the precision required by the subject matter. In some classes, key scientific terms were written on the whiteboard in order to highlight them and there was clear evidence that students understood them from the extent of their use of these terms during the lesson. This is excellent practice.
A range of methodologies was observed. These included student practical work, the use of the overhead projector (OHP), pair work, group work, questioning, handouts and the use of information and communication technology (ICT). The methodologies were seamlessly integrated into the lessons, they enabled a comprehensive review of material covered in earlier lessons and facilitated student-centred learning. It is recommended that the use of ICT be extended to include student project work where ICT is used in research, report writing and presenting findings.
Rapport with students was excellent. The teachers moved through the classroom assisting, examining and encouraging the students. The teachers’ questions elicited factual responses and also facilitated higher order thinking. Students were encouraged to hypothesize, to speculate and to explain their reasoning. This is best practice and the teachers are to be commended for their innovative, considered and caring approach.
The practical work that was undertaken was integrated into the lesson; it was efficiently organized and implemented. The students worked in pairs, were well prepared, skilful and demonstrated a mature approach to their work. Good practice in highlighting health and safety procedures was evident and the teacher is to be commended for facilitating such a valuable exercise. The teacher facilitated plenary sessions before and after the experiment, thus ensuring that the students clearly understood the purpose of the practical work and had an opportunity to discuss and rationalize their findings. While preparing for the practical work, the teacher adopted a problem-solving approach and effectively challenged students to come up with a solution to the problem of how to calculate the percentage of water in a soil sample. This is exemplary practice. Furthermore, the students were encouraged to suggest refinements to the experiment and to speculate as to the effects of such refinements.
Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during the lessons. The homework given was appropriate to the lesson content, was varied as to type and was designed to assist the student in learning and understanding the topic in question.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science and Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a very good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspectors. Formative assessment of students is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, through correction of homework and through the excellent level of teacher movement and observation of students during class that was noted by the inspectors.
Students kept laboratory notebooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabuses in the science area. The quality of the notebooks was excellent due, in no small measure, to the extent of attention paid by the science and biology teachers to them, with particular attention being paid to entering the results of each activity and drawing appropriate conclusions. This is excellent practice. It is suggested that laboratory notebooks are annotated directly as part of this process with positive and affirming comments.
All classes are assessed by means of a Christmas examination. Formal assessments are held for non-examination classes in the summer. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations. Examination papers and procedures are matched closely to those of the Junior and Leaving Certificate in order to familiarise students with these examinations. This is good practice. Certificate examination classes sit mock examinations in the spring. The students’ scripts are assessed internally. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and on computer in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports for all classes, and following mock examinations for third-year and sixth-year students. In addition, first-year students receive reports at the Halloween mid-term, detailing progress to date and how well they are settling in to post-primary school, and again at the February mid-term break. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers, covering such areas as student attendance, assessment records, student behaviour, work done and homework. This is good practice. The recorded information can be used to build up student profiles and can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on choice of subjects at senior level and on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and Biology and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.